Sunday, October 21, 2007

Buddhism Without Bullshit: My sesshin at Dharma Field

or my experience at Sesshin at Dharma Field Zen Center, October 19-20th, 2007.

Long-time readers may remember my first sesshin at the San Francisco Zen Center City Center. It was ultimately good for my practice, but it was very emotionally difficult at the time. If you go back and read that essay, I have to say that my impressions of San Francisco Zen Center then were confirmed by my experience now at Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis. That is, I had the kind of experience I think a newcomer should have at Dharma Field, and I was really, really, really, pleased to find out that they regard the same things as bullshit that I do.

First, when I walked up to the door to which I was instructed to arrive at the time I was asked to arrive, I was met by the person I was told would be there and he welcomed me with "You must be Richard, welcome." I was shown to the quarters I expected to have, given the assistance I expected to get and was otherwise left alone. Wow, what a joy.

When I showed up later that evening for orientation, the person who promised to greet me was there at the time and place I was promised and she also said "You must be Richard, welcome." Wow, real people being real nice. That midwestern charm is hard to beat, donchaknow?

Sesshin orientation was complete, thorough, un-rushed, friendly, and warm. I was told everything I needed to know to fit in, to follow the rules and to make it possible for me to concentrate on my practice instead of my embarrassment. The oryoki instruction I received was much easier to follow than any I've had before (I call it confus-y-oki for a reason), several bullshit steps I have been exposed to in other places were not a part of their ritual.

Saturday morning (I arrived Friday night and was afforded overnight accommodations gratis) things happened exactly as I was told they would, exactly on time, and in a way that really fully supported collecting my mind (which is what sesshin really means) without having to overcome hurdles of excessive self-doubt, self-consciousness or disorientation.

The center itself is exactly how I would comport such a place if I was in charge of it. Clean, simple, no ornamentation (I can't tell you how many ornaments are stuffed into the San Francisco Zen Center City Center, more buddha statues than I can count, that's for sure), not even a buddha figure or icon within sight, except on magazines (that come from somewhere else) and on the advertising leaflets for their classes. Everything is either natural wood or plain off-white semi-gloss finish. There is not a single unnecessary item in the entire place, and not a single item less than what is needed to support being a student.

Even the landscaping instructs, in a neighborhood full of tightly-controlled lawns, the yard at Dharma Field takes one back to the prairie land that was originally here. Indigenous plants (now dying, as they should be in October), flowing stone paths, really careful attention to letting things be as they really are. Nothing seems out of place or artificial.

At San Francisco Zen Center the rule seemed to be "if it moves, bow to it, and if it doesn't move, bow passing it in either direction." Now, I don't mean to single out San Francisco Zen Center, I think this bow-happy bullshit is not unusual, San Francisco is just the only other zen center with which I have personal experience. At Dharma Field, people bowed when I expected them to, when it seems actually useful for mindfulness practice, and I was never caught off guard by bowing nor was I asked to bow in a way that felt out of place or artificial.

Unlike my sesshin in San Francisco, the sigh-up list for Dokusan, or a private interview with the head teacher, was pointed out and easy to find. In San Francisco, I was never told how to sign up until opportunities for Dokusan had passed, and then I was told about it in a "Oh? You didn't know that?" sort of mock surprise. No opportunity was given to get Dokusan anyway, though I badly wanted it at the time, I had several burning questions about my practice back then.

I know this is starting to sound like a "let's bash San Francisco Zen Center" essay, and I don't mean it that way. I am deeply, deeply appreciative of what San Francisco Zen Center has made available to me and I'll always look back on my experience there with the fondness one has for an impossibly bad first date, I just think that old gray mare may have passed her prime. Something new needs to happen there. Now I am all the more curious why Katagiri Roshi did not become abbot when Suzuki Roshi passed, but I am grateful he didn't, because that's ultimately how Dharma Field came to pass.

Anyway, my Dokusan at Dharma Field was wonderful. I was very nervous, it was my first time and with a teacher I deeply admire and respect. He immediately put me at ease and we conversed in a warm and friendly matter. He immediately recognized things about me that others haven't figured out even after daily contact with me for a long time, and his comments on my practice revealed that he had been paying close attention to me even though I had little external reason to think he even noticed me. We even joked with each other about our mutual distaste for the concept of reincarnation and were mutually appreciative of each other's rational and scientific world-view. He gave me some pointers on my practice that were extremely useful and never made me feel stupid or inadequate for having these opportunities for improvement. He directed other questions properly to self-study and gave me all of the time I wanted. In fact, I brought the interview to a close on my own initiative.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. I had a great experience and I look forward to coming back, even though my teacher and I share the same concerns about excessive air travel vis-a-vis global heating. We'll just have to see how that goes. If you want to study Buddhism without the Bullshit, I recommend Steve Hagen as a teacher (he has several books) and Dharma Field as a center.

There's also an awesome collection of lectures on mp3.

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